Smooth Skin :: Tutorial :: Photoshop CS2, Photoshop CS3, Photoshop CS4, and Photoshop CS5

Steve Weinrebe

Not all skin is smooth, and not all skin should be photographed as smooth. But there are times a subject’s skin should be smooth and neither the right lighting nor a makeup artist is at hand. Skylight (generally a very soft light source), direct sunlight, or flash (diffused or not) can all be very harsh on facial texture, especially without a fill light or reflector. This bride for example was photographed under a harshly bright mid-day sky. Beautiful and glowing as she is, she deserves a softer treatment for her skin in the photograph. (Background Note: This bride’s wedding was in a refugee camp, far from glamour lighting or makeup artists.)

There are techniques for smoothing skin that run a photographer through twenty or so hoops, but one of my New Year’s resolutions is “whenever possible, simplify”. To that end here is a five step method to smooth skin texture.

Step 1

Duplicate the Background layer.

This is as simple as right-mouse-clicking on the image’s Background layer and choosing “Duplicate Layer”. Click OK in the resulting dialog box, and the new layer appears above the Background layer in the Layers panel.

Step 2

Convert the duplicate layer into a Smart Object. Again simply right-mouse-click on the layer in the Layers panel and this time choose “Convert to Smart Object”.

Step 3
Load selection from channel.

Take a look at the Channels panel and you’ll see the three color channels, Red, Green, and Blue, along with their corresponding grayscale thumbnails. Look for the channel that is lightest in the skin tones, likely the Red channel since skin comprises mostly red hues, and the more of the color the lighter the grayscale in the channel (and vice versa).

Command (Mac), or Control (Windows) – Click on the Channel thumbnail to load a selection based on the grayscale attributes of the channel (Hint: what is white becomes selected, black is not selected, and gray tones become partially selected based on their brightness).

Click once on the RGB composite thumbnail at the top of the Channels panel to view the image in color. The Layers panel and image now looks like the figure above.

Step 4

Apply a Gaussian Blur from the Filter menu.

In the resulting dialog, for this image (about a 10 megapixel image), I chose a blur amount of 5 pixels. Because the Gaussian Blur is applied to a Smart Object, the Layers panel shows the filter in the Smart Filter list below the layer. In addition because a selection was active (Step 3), the filter honors the selection via the Smart Filter’s mask, turning unselected (or masked) areas into black on the filter mask.

Step 5

Click once on the filter mask to make the mask the active object in the Layers panel and paint black with the Brush tool onto the filter mask, to hide the filter on critical areas such as the eyes, tip of the nose, the mouth, ears, jewelry, and anywhere else the filter doesn’t need to be applied to. (Note: You cannot paint on a Smart Object without opening up the contents but you can paint on a Smart Object’s filter mask.)

Because the Gaussian Blur filter was applied to the Smart Object as a Smart Filter, the filter’s Blending Options can be opened by double clicking on the icon to right of the filter’s name (see figure above). In the resulting dialog the Smart Filter’s opacity can be reduced to reel in the effect of the filter. Or to change the filter’s intensity simply click on the filter name in the Layer’s panel to bring up the Gaussian Blur dialog box again.

The result is smoother skin, adjusted in the post-production workflow with Photoshop CS4. Compare the enlarged before and after segments below.

Steve Weinrebe:
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Photography © Steve Weinrebe, Getty Images